Rice Epicurean Markets lives up to its middle name with a roster of signature items that includes coriander-coffee grilled beef tenderloin; plank roasted, raspberry-chipotle Atlantic salmon; and whole portabella mushrooms draped with melted provolone and artichoke hearts.
One look at the prepared-food menu leaves no doubt that culinary-trained chefs are at work here. It's not just the flower garnishes carved from zucchini and huge oranges. It is the tempting, with-it selections. The chefs, sometimes more than one to a store, don't miss a beat keeping up with what's new, but they also make some old-time, regional favorites.
The company — the oldest family-owned supermarket retailer in Houston — sticks to the past in good ways, preserving its “customer is No. 1” tradition. That philosophy has not waned since the Levy family opened a tiny grocery store here decades ago, and it is a key to the success of the current fresh prepared-food programs, officials said.
“We watch and listen closely to keep up with what our customers want, and we can react quickly,” said Douglas Dick, Rice Epicurean's vice president of foodservice.
He pointed out that the company makes a conscious effort to combine the best of now with the best of the past.
“We were the first grocery store in Houston to hire real chefs, and the first to compete in the full-service catering business with our Epicurean Catering Company,” Dick told SN. “And we're also the last supermarket in Houston to make deliveries to the customer's door. No other one here is doing home delivery.”
The five-unit retailer's roots go back to the 1930s. For a long time, the family had the only grocery store in its area, and it developed a fiercely loyal following, partly because the family so obviously cared about its customers.
Even today, in addition to offering home delivery, the company lets customers run up a tab — just like in the old days. The only difference is that now grocery orders come in via the Internet and tabs are kept on company charge cards instead of in a notebook.
The family's first store, William H. Levy's Rice Boulevard Food Market, at a total of 2,400 square feet, sat in undeveloped territory alongside farmland, some of it rice fields. Since then, the area — now Houston's trendy Galleria — has undergone enormous changes. So has the family business — changes that have kept it going strong all these years through up-and-down economic times.
“We survived the [current] recession by keeping things fresh, new and exciting with a lot of variety, which we believe is very important,” said Dick. “The variety in prepared foods makes it exciting for our kitchen crews as well as for our customers.”
He also said the deli ramped up suggestive selling, something it's always done, but recently with increased vigor.
“Someone might come in for our signature all-white-meat chicken salad, and while the associate is packing it up, they might ask the customer if they would like to try our special of the day, maybe summertime succotash linguini.”
As the weather heats up in Houston, the deli adds cool and lighter offerings, putting unique salads in the spotlight, touting them in its circular and talking them up in the store.
“For summer, two chef-created salads — cranberry and pecan tuna, and smoked turkey, spinach and egg salad — are big sellers,” Dick said.
The impressive array of prepared foods, all made in each store's obviously well-equipped commercial kitchen, started taking shape 22 years ago, when the company opened its first Rice Epicurean Market, a gourmet/specialty foods store.
That was in response to the big, national chains starting to move into the area. The owners, members of the company's founding family, knew they had to figure out how to stay ahead of the game. They decided part of the solution lay in differentiating themselves with fresh, upscale, chef-prepared food in big variety. Signature items, too, they knew would play a big part in making the company stand apart.
“The owners were in California and in New York where they saw Balducci's and other specialty stores. They saw what they were doing and they liked what they saw,” Dick said.
“They brought the ideas back to Houston and ultimately gave new life to their grocery stores.”
The changes were successful enough to warrant expanding within a short time, but it is important to note that the owners kept expansion limited to five stores situated in affluent areas — a major factor in their ongoing success.
“The five Rice Epicurean Markets continue to thrive and succeed in the Houston market by understanding the needs of each neighborhood,” noted Brian Salus, president of foodservice consultancy Salus & Associates in Richmond, Va.
“Rice Epicurean Markets was one of my early clients and I remember when they made the commitment to prepared foods and hired Douglas Dick from the hotel industry. Douglas is a real professional foodservice person, and he has brought a lot to this great family retailer. Gary Friedlander, Bruce Levy, Scott Silverman and Phil Cohen provide the support for Douglas and his team to continue to succeed as they have evolved.
“Retailers wonder why they haven't succeeded in the supermarket foodservice arena. Rice has the answers: commitment and continuity. They continue to do a great job.”
The prepared-food program is very structured, with a menu of recipes for 25 to 35 entrees, 45 to 50 sides, and 50 to 75 salads that chefs can choose from. The items are regularly rotated in and out, with season playing a role. For instance, in October, there will be several German dishes for Oktoberfest.
Then, there are set items that have to be kept in the cases in all stores all the time. Beyond those, chefs do have some flexibility, Dick pointed out.
“If a particular item is selling like crazy in one store, the chef doesn't have to rotate it out on schedule. He can keep it. They're only locked into what we've advertised.”
In fact, chefs have quite a bit of discretion in how they run their departments, but accountability falls on the shoulders of just one person.
“A lot of companies break up duties, but we have one chef in each store who has oversight of all deli programs, including specialty cheese and the olive bars, as well as prepared food,” Dick said.
“He's responsible for gross, labor and supply costs, everything. It's nice having accountability under one person.”
Deli sales currently account for about 9% to 10% of total store sales.
While Rice Epicurean has become known in the area for the excellence of all its fresh departments, the deli is sure to catch the customer's eye quickly.
Upon entering the store, customers first see an extensive floral department, merchandised with flair, right smack in the middle, up front, with a huge produce department just beyond. This positioning is deliberate to send the “fresh” and “exciting” messages, Dick said.
Then, just to their left, customers see an appealingly colorful prepared-food presentation that stretches a long way down the side of the store. Non-glare, front-and-back-loading chef's cases show off a large selection of chilled entrees, sides and salads, piled high on sturdy-looking white crockery platters in various geometric shapes.
A very clean-cut looking salad and soup bar, too, is set right up front at the beginning of the run of chilled, prepared food.
Tempting aromas are apt to waft across the area from the steam table, set up for lunch from 11 to 2, just to the left of the salad bar.
Then, in the evening, The Carvery is one of the first things customers see. The aroma of cooked meat coming from that station is particularly captivating.
“During the week, at 4 o'clock, we set up The Carvery, where we might be offering beef tenderloin, a standing rib roast, marinated pork loin, roasted salmon on a cedar plank, or other roasts. Customers can go to our website to see what The Carvery's hot entree of the day is,” said Dick.
Hot sides and sauces are dished up there, as well, and everything is priced both by the plate and by the pound.
“Most customers buy by the pound,” Dick explained, “because they're mixing and matching.”
Customers may choose a hot entree from The Carvery, and then pick up other items — salads, appetizers and desserts — from the line-up of chilled offerings in the chef's service case, or from the packaged items in the shorter, self-service “Fresh From Our Kitchens” section adjacent to the chef's case.
At the end of that line, across the aisle, is a 4-foot section with various kinds of smoked fish.
Ethnic specialties are part of the fresh-food mix.
“We have a high proportion of our customer base that's Jewish. In fact, the Jewish holidays are very, very busy for us,” Dick said. “We use many family recipes to complete our Jewish holiday menus.”
Dick added that the wife of one of the owners makes a fantastic noodle kugel.
“We use that recipe and one for Baked Chicken Joanne, a recipe from the wife of one of our other owners.”
Dick sees a bright future at Rice Epicurean Markets for fresh, prepared foods, which he calls the backbone of the deli.
The stores are located in upscale areas that are part residential and part commercial, dominated by small businesses, and the clientele is middle class, upper middle class and above.
“Foodservice in our stores will continue to grow because we offer several different ways our customers can save time and still have a high-quality meal solution for their families,” said Dick.
But he also emphasized that Rice Epicurean offers one-stop shopping for whatever shoppers might want — from the mundane to the unique. As part of its upscale, gourmet profile, the company offers the newest of the new, the trendiest of the trendy.
“Our buyers go every year to the Fancy Food Shows on the East Coast and the West Coast and they come back to us with what's new,” Dick said. “It keeps us current on all gourmet food trends.”
SEE IT YOURSELF
HOUSTON — Attendees at this week's International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association show here have an opportunity to take a closer look at Rice Epicurean Markets. Douglas Dick, vice president of foodservice, has pointed to two Rice Epicurean stores close to the George R. Brown Convention Center that are representative of the family-owned company's five units. Both 30,000-square-foot stores were remodeled fairly recently. One is a 15-minute drive away at 3745 Westheimer Road. Take U.S. 59 South to the Edloe Street/Weslayan Road exit; turn left at Westheimer Road. The store is at the corner of Westheimer and Weslayan. The other is about 20 minutes away at 5016 San Felipe St., near Post Oak. Take U.S. 59 South to Interstate 610 North. From I-610 North, take exit 9 onto San Felipe Road/Post Oak Boulevard, and turn left at San Felipe Street. The store will be on the right. One of the other five Rice Epicurean units, located at Holcombe & Kirby, is closed during June and July for a major renovation.